The Dichotomies in Personal Learning Environments and Institutions

Jordi Adell and I were invited to impart a keynote at the PLE Conference, taking place on July 9th, 2010. It became clear from the start that the organization did not actually want a keynote at all, but “something different”. A “something different” that looked very much like a “pros & cons” or a “good cop, bad cop” dialogue. The problem was that Jordi and I had very similar opinions on the topic that we had quickly chosen and which has produced a heated conversation when talking about Personal Learning Environments (PLEs): their relationships with institutions.

Ticked off the list a keynote and a dialogue, we came up with a game. We would present five pairs of dichotomies and will make the participants in the session to vote with their feet (à la Charles Tiebout). As some participants complained, the world is not black or white, but a richest range of grays, so to make people choose either or that option would be unfair. Yes it was, but (a) the exercise was about simplification, (b) highlighting the top values and (c) we had no room — space and time — for a continuous (vs. discrete) approach.

So, we draw a 2×2 matrix on the floor and projected the five pairs of dichotomies on a screen. People had then to physically move and place themselves in the quadrant of their choice according to their beliefs. We picture below the results of this voting with your feet. The numbers in the quadrants are just approximate, as no one even tried to really count the people in each quadrant, though they give a fair idea of the magnitudes at stake (there were circa 100 people in the room). I add to the screenshots some comments based on what I remember that Jordi and I said on the fly: they should so be attributed to both, as they were made indistinctly by one of us and I never had the sensation that we disagreed (I apologize in advance if, in the transcription, I put too much of myself in it).

1. PLEs and Institutions
  • Do PLEs have a place in formal education?
  • Shoud PLEs be procured institutionally or be placed outside institutions?
Image of the results of a game during the PLE conference

The first thing that is evident from the chart is that there is no agreement on whether institutions will be replaced by user-generated learning environments or, on the contrary, institutions will instead prevail but be leveraging the power of PLEs and other devices.

It is interesting to see that, despite the EduPunk momentum, the majority still believes on the power or need for institutions. Some commented that the participants were split in two: the Anglo-Saxon approach and the Latin one, being the former more pro-EduPunk and the latter more pro-institutions.

2. Openness
  • The student’s digital identity must be isolated from the rest or be identified as a whole (the student has a single identity, regardless of their context)?
  • The university must be an open or a closed environment?
Image of the results of a game during the PLE conference

While the previous point was definitely not about consensus, openness certainly was: no one doubted that the walls of formal education had to be torn down and that it increasingly made no sense to have an environment devoted only to learning and the rest where learning “did not happen”.

Notwithstanding, if learning happens anywhere, it does not necessarily follow that it happens anytime: though an overwhelming majority advocated also for tearing down the walls of the learner vs. professional, some voted for keeping the possibility to play a different role when you are actively learning than where you are not (at least in “active” terms).

3. The curriculum
  • Who decides how the curriculum is designed: the system or the “apprentice”?
  • Credit must be provided institutionally or socially (P2P)?
Image of the results of a game during the PLE conference

Unlike point 1, where institutions kept a good amount of power in providing and managing learning environments, when it comes to credit proportions swap: most people thought that the apprentice should be sovereign of their instructional design and how it will be measured and assessed.

This is definitely in line with a tacit agreement that students should lead their learning process, while teachers should accompany them through it, but walking side by side, never in front of it.

4. Barriers (I)
  • The main barriers for change are institutional or individual?
  • The main barriers for change are technological or pedagogical?
Image of the results of a game during the PLE conference

Concerning a first set of barriers — the usual dichotomy of education or technology — the majority pointed at the system: the problem is institutional and pedagogical.

Notwithstanding, and as it happened with EduPunk or institutionalism, the participants were mostly split between pedagogists and technologists, so it is likely that the latter were not as optimistic about technological barriers (digital divide, digital competence) than the former were.

5. Barriers (II)
  • The main barriers for change are standardization (inflexibility) or atomization (chaos)?
  • The main barriers for change are organizational or economical?
Image of the results of a game during the PLE conference

To reinforce the previous point, when looking at flexibility vs. resources and organization, the choices again are clear, even clearer than before, putting the educational system in the eye of the hurricane.


Taken as a whole and not pair by pair, we noted that we could group the five dichotomies in two sets. On the one hand, we could take PLEs (1) and the Curriculum (3). As we have already set, these seem to show (show in the sense of the participants’ perceptions, of course!) that the trend is an increasing movement from institutions towards the student, a shift of the responsibility of one’s learning from schools to students that have not only to learn, but to learn what they have to learn, to learn to learn.

To help them in this endeavour, institutions have an important role as guides (not leaders) that have to trespass their own walls and enter the environments (in plural) where learning actually takes place, which increasingly is outside of the framework of formality.

In fact, this seems to be answering at the WHAT question: what is learning in the digital era?

The rest of pairs (Openness and the Barriers) seem to be pointing at the HOW question: how should learning be carried on in the digital era?. The answer seems to be open and flexible institutions, new educational systems and methodologies and a dire organizational change.

It is a little bit worrying that a hundred educators, deeply committed with the evolution of education and knowledgeable on instructional technology, despite their different and personal approaches, they all got together at pointing at the educational system — read: educational policies — as the problem of education. Any politician in da haus?


After the exercise we went on with a lively debate amongst all the attendants. Here come some random notes that I took on the fly and that were being beamed as I took them:

  • Cyberinfrastructures should be used to leverage change, a change that should not only be in technology but also and especially inn attitudes.
  • Are there enough resources to PLE-ize your discipline? Is everything PLE-izable? That is, is the PLE something that can be universally used in any discipline and environment?
  • Teamwork as a pre-condition to PLE-ing: there is no (useful) PLE if it is not based in a framework of sharing and working as a community with a common goal.
  • PLEs are bottom-up strategies: they originate in the bottom, but should target the upper spheres (i.e. Institutions). In this sense PLEs are not only a working tool, but a tool for change.
  • PLEs are personal devices: we need to embed institutions, institutional aspects, and participation within our PLEs. In other words, institutions have to step into PLEs and these have their share of institutions. To do so, notwithstanding, institutions must be PLE-able, they have to rethink themselves, be more flexible, more open, and adapt to the new learning realities.
  • PLEs as personal constructs vs. commodities: in our bridging institutions and individual learners through PLEs, do we incur in the risk of commoditizing personal learning environments and making of them extensions or tentacles of the all-eating institution?
  • PLEs not to de-school society, but for un-schooled people. Or, better said, the stress the inclusion factor of PLEs as a way to bring education at reach of everyone: where institutions cannot reach, PLEs will.
  • Institutions build the walls of libraries, PLEs fill them with books. PLEs have to go hand in hand with the structure, surround it, fill in the voids, enrich the always cold but needed concrete columns where a society lies upon.

Slides of the presentation

(just translated and put nicely)


PLE Conference (2010)

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2010) “The Dichotomies in Personal Learning Environments and Institutions” In ICTlogy, #82, July 2010. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
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4 Comments to “The Dichotomies in Personal Learning Environments and Institutions” »

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  2. Thanks for sharing your experience and your thoughts. I liked the way you introduced discussion about these topics.

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